A Global War Seems Unavoidable
In my opinion, the most important event of 2016 for understanding the future is neither Donald J. Trump’s stunning victory nor Brexit but the Nobel Symposium where Nassim Taleb presented his thesis disproving the concept that violence in the world is declining; he mathematically substantiated that the world cannot avoid a war with tens of millions of casualties.
Ironically, it is the symposium of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee that resolved a long intellectual war over the prospects of wars.
The history of this war is as interesting and exciting as a thriller. To understand its origins, nature, and character, one has to know what preceded the war and what instigated it.
It all began almost 20 years ago when the concept of singularity acquired chronological outlines after independent scientific publications from different countries, which combined evolution and historical process into one progression.
The publications showed that the evolution of mankind and its history can simultaneously come to an end by the middle of the 21st century.
Three Singularity Scenarios
At the close of the XX century, three scientists from Australia, Russia and the USA independently showed that shrinking intervals between global phase transitions in the history of the biosphere and anthroposphere form a geometric progression, the denominator of which is approximately equal to the base of natural logarithms.
Having extrapolated the hyperbolic curve into the future, all three authors came to the conclusion that the hyperbola turns into a vertical at about the middle of the XXI century.
This result, called the Snooks-Panov Vertical, means that the rate of evolutionary change tends to infinity and intervals between phase transitions tends to zero (for more details, see here).
According to this theory,
there will be a new phase transition and mankind will enter a new stage of its development in the middle of the XXI century.
There is no common opinion on the causes of this phase transition. There are three hypotheses, though.
— Some believe that the phase transition could possibly be caused by the technological singularity; it is posited that at some point in time the invention of artificial intelligence and self-upgradable machines, the integration of humans and computers or expanding human capabilities via biotechnologies will trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in inexplicable changes to human civilization.
— Some consider a global war to be the most probable cause of civilizational shift, which would either destroy humanity or send it back to prehistoric times. As Einstein put it, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
— Others think the combination of both of the above-described causes (technological growth and war) to be most probable; it is the concept of knowledge-enabled mass destruction.
However, whatever the cause of the phase transition, mathematically there are only three scenarios involving three possible attractors.
N.B. Any non-linear system tends to evolve towards one of stable final states, alias attractors, which it reaches sooner or later (though it is not always possible to predict to which one, when, and in what way).
1. Scenario 1: The curve of development is sloping downward. The movement towards a simple attractor implies self-destruction of civilization, its “downgrading” with the prospect of more or less painful degradation of the anthroposphere and biosphere until thermodynamic equilibrium (heat death). This scenario is most likely to result from a global war.
2. Scenario 2: A horizontal strange attractor (horizontal sideways movement) involves some stabilization mechanisms working over the long haul. In a sense, this scenario implies the “end of history,” too: having ceased progressive development, the bearer of intelligence restricts the ability to manage large-scale processes and becomes hostage to the natural tendency of the biota, Earth, Sun, etc. to deteriorate with time. This variant is similar to the result of a global war.
3. Scenario 3: A vertical strange attractor means an unprecedentedly abrupt turn towards “moving away from the nature”, most likely due to the onset of the above-described technological singularity.
The second and third scenarios have been cultivated by filmmakers, writers and the most conservative visionaries.
The 3rd scenario has become a favorite among Hollywood (Terminator, Matrix, etc.), technological newsmakers, and visionary alarmists (Nick Bostrom, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, etc.).
The 2nd scenario, in the form of extrapolation of today’s consumer society into the future without any antidote for nightmares of consumerism, consumption, and idleness, has laid the groundwork for many anti-utopias, among which is a science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, ‘The Final Circle of Paradise’, the first, and most successful, description of such future.
But it is not that easy with the 1st, apocalyptic, scenario, the most obvious and terrible one. It is this scenario that has been upsetting businessmen and politicians, depriving mankind of motivation to buy more and more new things, invest in securities, and vote for the same politicians again and again. Who will do this on the eve of an imminent apocalypse?
So in order to withdraw this scenario from circulation, the method propagandists and forest firemen tried and tested in practice was employed, namely backfire (cross idea/concept). The concept that war and violence in the developed world are declining (also called the concept of the long peace) serves as such backfire.
Ministering Angels of the Long Peace
The main proponent of the concept of the long peace is Steven Pinker, Harvard professor of cognitive psychology and the author of a world bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes.
In his book Pinker comes to the conclusion that
the social norms established by states have gradually changed human psychology in such a way that people take the interests and needs of other people into consideration.
The spread of literacy and democracy and the development of supranational institutions, in Pinker’s opinion, have played an important role in the process of civilization. Commerce also has helped to reduce world violence, requiring tolerance and “turning enemies into buyers.”
Demographic trends have led to a lower percentage of young people in the total population, which reduced an army of people prone to violence. Technologies, from the atomic bomb to television and the Internet, have also reduced the incentives to wage large-scale wars.
Finally, Pinker concluded, superpower leaders have done an excellent job of stopping the arms race and putting an end to the Cold War. And fascist and communist ideologies that contributed so much to the expansion of violence in the 20th century were decisively defeated.
The main conclusion from Pinker’s concept is as follows:
Violence has been in decline for long stretches of time. We’re actually in a period referred to by scholars as“The Long Peace,” which began at the end of World War II, and which is marked by the absence of war among the world’s great powers.
This conclusion is illustrated with extensive statistical data.
Developing his concept of the long peace, Pinker used a statistical database containing records only through 2009. Naturally, in the 2010s Pinker has been receiving many questions regarding whether his concept has to be changed in the light of new data on current wars, such as the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Pinker did not hesitate to respond presenting a new corps of statistics to confirm that the concept is valid after 2009 as well.
However, after intensification of the Syria conflict in 2015 and the outbreak of terror attacks in Europe, Pinker has been received questions again. He was certain: “Things really are getting better.” Again he provided abundant persuasive graphic evidence.
Of course, there were some criticisms after Pinker’s bestseller had come out. The book was criticized for different things.
The New Yorker’s reviewer pointed out that the book focuses exclusively on Western Europe and that if we add the victims of the regimes of Stalin and Mao to the losses in the Second World War, then the total number of people violently killed in the mid-20th century exceeds a hundred million.
A British philosopher argued that Pinker exploits science to strengthen faith in the future. He called Pinker’s concept a “high-tech prayer wheel”, a set of electronic spreadsheets containing inspirational statistics on the progress of mankind, powered by algorithms that show this progress to be ongoing.
Criticism of the Pinker concept was most clearly formulated by a Harvard professor: “Pinker prefers bad data to no data.”
Pinker responded to criticisms more than once. The most striking example of such an answer is Pinker’s article in the Journal of Sociology. And he wrapped his article in an extremely showy way.
Pinker declared that the secession of Crimea from Ukraine most probably would have caused a global armed conflict in the 20th century. Now it will never trigger a world war, nor even a conflict.
At that time (early March 2014) nobody knew what was about to happen.
All came off as Pinker had asserted; critics, in Pinker’s opinion, were finally disgraced. They had but to give up on both dexterous Pinker and his spirit-lifting utopia of the angels of the long peace.
But then Nassim Taleb declared an intellectual war on the author of the concept of the long peace.
A Chronicle of the Intellectual War
Nassim Taleb criticized the concept of the long peace in a completely different manner.
In the words of Taleb,
“Mathematicians think in (well precisely defined and mapped) objects, philosophers in concepts, jurists in constructs, logicians in operators (…), and fools in words.”
Therefore, Taleb decided to express criticism not in words (to which Pinker used to respond in an exceedingly verbose way) but in mathematical terms, to which an opponent may answer only in mathematical language.
The main object of criticism was a fat-tailed distribution that exhibits large skewness. The ‘fat tail’ often contains ‘Black Swans’, hardly probable but very important events; therefore it meaningless to calculate mean values.
Otherwise it can turn out to be as in the one about the average temperature hospital-wide: T = 36.6 Co and ten people died. Or as in the well-known “Turkey Surprise” story about a turkey considering that the owner’s destined to regularly feed the turkey that is destined to eat very well. “It had always been like that”, thought the turkey. But here came Christmas, and “Surprise, surprise”!
Taleb argued that the theory of the long peace is simply the ravings of an idealist who does not understand mathematical subtleties of fat-tailed distributions. Taleb likened the concept of the decline of war and violence to the idea that the stock market could go up forever without crashes.
Their paper is of great value not only as a criticism of the concept of the long peace. Taleb and Cirillo mathematically established for the first time that historical data on war casualties are greatly exaggerated. Not only did the authors prove this, but they have also done an awesome job of cleansing data from several thousand historical sources.
Most importantly though, they used
— the extreme value theory (section of mathematical statistics to estimate the probability of ‘black swan events’, such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc., characterized by extremely high deviation from the mean of the probability distribution) and
— the generalized Pareto distribution (used to model only the tail of distributions)
to prove two important points:
1. All the statistical pictures obtained are at variance with the prevailing claims about “long peace”, namely that violence has been declining over time.
2. Throughout recorded history, wars with huge numbers of casualties occurred about every 100 years therefore 70+ years of peace after the Second World War cannot serve as evidence that there is a trend towards less violence in the world.
For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that Taleb and Cyrillo did not escape criticisms of their outstanding paper.
For instance, who can prove that the trend that existed over all previous centuries has not changed since 1945? It is an interesting argument; thereby you can question anything, from Newton’s laws to regularity of the sunrise (who can prove that the sun 100% will rise tomorrow?).
Another critic attempted to question Taleb and Cyrillo’s mathematical method, their ultimate weapon. But the argumentation turned out to be purely verbal. In his opinion, extreme value theory is a good thing but who said that it could be used to analyze how war casualty figures change with time? Again, who will prove…?
I have but to tell about the last battle of the intellectual war at the Nobel Symposium in the city of Bergen, Norway.
The Battle of Bergen
Apparently, the intellectual war of Taleb and Pinker reached a breaking point: the concept of the long peace was the subject of a discussion at the 161st Nobel Symposia (The Causes of Peace).
The organizer of the discussion was professor of history Olav Njølstad, Secretary of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and Director of the Nobel Institute.
Njølstad has been exploring issues of war and peace for a long time. In 2001, he organized a Nobel Symposium Discussion on “War and Peace in the 20th Century and Beyond”. 29 Peace Nobel laureates participated in the symposium; afterwards Njølstad wrote a book on their intellectual analyses.
Among the participants of the 161st Nobel Symposia held in June 2016 were three of the five members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and 20 world-renowned scientists, including legends in the field of political science: Bruce Russett, Joanne Gowa, and Paul Diehl, and also a number of famous historians, including Niall Ferguson and Fred Logevall.
Nasim Taleb’s thesis (its non-technical part) was published.
The second speaker was Bear Braumoeller, Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University. He specializes in issues of war and peace. Most important, however, is that he is not only a professor of political science, but also an expert in mathematical statistics (which is a rarity). You just look through his famous paper, ‘Is War Disappearing’? (for presentation see here).
Professor Beyr Braumuller was invited as an external expert in issues of war and peace who could weigh in on the intellectual war of Taleb and Pinker. After all, with all due respect for Pinker and Taleb, the former specializes in psychology and the latter in mathematical statistics.
Clearly, although Taleb and Braumuller used different methods and different raw data, their results completely coincide.
There is no decline in violence. And the “long peace” is just another predictable pause between global wars.
Naturally, Stephen Pinker was also invited to the Nobel Symposium, but he did not show up.
It is a Naive, Naive, Naive, Naive World
Surprisingly enough, nothing has changed after the symposium.
Only the participants of the symposium and a hundred scientists know the story that you have just read. The media have failed to report it.
However, the concept of the long peace continues to be one of the popular mass myths. People are still buying new things, investing in stocks, and electing new politicians. Everything goes on as usual.
Stephen Pinker believes that his intellectual war with Taleb is a draw and keeps on propagandizing the long peace in the mass media press; he says that his opponents’ pessimism can act like self-fulfilling prophecies.
And the few who understand that the concept of the long peace is a myth have but to prepare for a big war, which seems unavoidable (as a participant of the 161st Nobel Symposium wrote).
“Fanatical nationalists and communists wreaked havoc in the 20th century. In our time, however, the Koran has displaced Das Kapital…. The world’s short peace is ending. Errors of western policy — from bungled intervention in Iraq to non-intervention in Syria — only partly explain the return of conflict. More important is the lethal combination of economic volatility, a youth bulge, disruptive technology and the viral spread of a lethal ideology.”
Originally published in Russian on January 8, 2017.
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